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The Noetics of NatureEnvironmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible$

Bruce V. Foltz

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780823254644

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823254644.001.0001

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Seeing Nature

Seeing Nature

theōria Physikē in the Thought of St. Maximos the Confessor

(p.158) Chapter 7 Seeing Nature
The Noetics of Nature

Bruce V. Foltz

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Nietzsche, and following him Lynn White Jr., argued that what Weber would call the “disenchantment” of nature allegedly effected by Christianity has been deleterious to the earth. Yet Nietzsche’s purported fidelity to the earth, and refusal of transcendence, entails not a liberation of nature, but its subjugation and domination. Moreover, ancient Christianity had in fact re-enchanted the earth at the very time that paganism had already become empty. Indeed, the Russian philosopher Florensky argued that it was Christianity that first gave rise to the “love of creation” which today we take for granted. This is especially evident in the practice of thēoria physikē or the “contemplation of nature” in Patristic figures such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Evagrios, attainting its full significance in Maximos the Confessor, for whom the “seeing” (and heeding) of the divine in nature signals a return to the lost paradise of divine presence in nature.

Keywords:   Friedrich Nietzsche, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, Maximus the Confessor, Max Weber, Pavel Florensky, Seeing, Disenchantment, Thēoria Physikē, Contemplation of Nature

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think.

—Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov1

So the soul flees toward the intellectual contemplation of nature, as to the inside of a Church and to a place of peaceful sanctuary … And there it learns to recognize the essential meanings of things as if through the readings from Holy Scripture.

—Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogy2


It was Heidegger who first made “the earth” a possible topic for serious philosophical inquiry. His former student, Hans-Georg Gadamer, vividly describes the philosophical “sensation” that was generated by the “new and startling” concept of “earth,” as it was introduced in several 1936 presentations of what was to later become “The Origin of the Work of Art.”3 Yet Heidegger was by no means the first philosopher to use the word in a philosophical context. For example, (p.159) in the work of Nietzsche, die Erde and das Irdische (earth and the earthly) play a crucial part in the unfolding of his metaphysics, even if they were never to quite become technical terms in the lexicon of Nietzsche scholarship. Thus, throughout his writings, Nietzsche adds the phrase “on earth” to many of his philosophical claims, in a way suggesting a rebuttal of the discursive analogy and metaphysical bond expressed in the great Christian Prayer: “on earth as it is in heaven.” For Nietzsche always leaves out the last clause, “as it is in heaven,” intending to remind us by this omission that we are “here on earth,” to bring us back “down to earth,” to wake us from our heavenly dreams and return us to earthly reality. We all know about Zarathustra’s call to be “true to the earth” and his charge that “to sin” not against heaven, but “against the earth is the most dreadful thing.”4 We remember, too, and more darkly, the madman’s frantic alarm in The Gay Science that the earth has been “unchained from its sun,” and we may wonder in passing how it can remain earth without its sun overhead, an earth without its heavens. But Zarathustra answers this doubt with a surprising claim and a peculiar imperative: “The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”5 This is not what environmental philosophers would most like to hear. “The overman shall be the meaning of the earth!” This is not deep ecology. We could call it anthropocentrism were it not that the overman is supposed to be more than anthrōpos: more creative and more masterful. Colder and harder. More domineering. More dominant.

Environmental thinkers have tended to uncritically embrace Nietzsche’s claim that metaphysics (especially Platonism) and theism (especially Christianity) have, in the language of Beyond Good and Evil, “cast suspicion on the joy in beauty.” But they have also read Nietzsche rather selectively, in this case ignoring the remainder of the same sentence: “bend everything haughty, manly, conquering, domineering, all the instincts of the highest and bestturned-out type of man, into unsureness, agony of conscience, selfdestruction—indeed invert all love of the earthly and dominion over the earth into hatred of the earth and the earthly.”6 Haughtiness? Testosterone? Conquest? “Love of the earthly and domination over the earth”? How to philosophize with a bulldozer? Or so Heidegger himself at last came to read Nietzsche. In the final volume of his book on Nietzsche, he argues that the rejection of the heavenly and invisible and transcendent—of “the old ‘traditional’ valuation [that gave] to life the perspective of something “suprasensuous, (p.160) supraterrestrial—epekeina, ‘beyond’”—this rejection leads in Nietzsche not to the virtues that environmentalists hold dear, but rather to “unrestricted” and “all-encompassing” and “absolute domination of the earth.”7 Indeed, it is in just this way that the overman redeems the earth, becomes its meaning, by imposing his own aims upon the earth: Divine dominion is exchanged for total human domination. By walling-off the heavenly and restricting the earth to one-dimensionality, the power of human will becomes focused and intensified and totalized. Denied its transcendent outlet, the human will-topower waxes and builds here “on earth.” The resultant humanity will have, Heidegger’s exegesis continues, an “essential aptitude for establishing absolute dominion over the earth. For only through such dominion will the absolute essence of pure will come to appear before itself, that is to say, come to power.”8

Furthermore, if Heidegger is right about Nietzsche’s thought of an earth disconnected from its heaven, then a key presupposition of recent environmental thought becomes dubious. Lynne White Jr., in an essay discussed already in the third and sixth chapters of this book, and that I have argued has had a widespread and ultimately toxic effect upon environmental thought, concludes that it is the sense of human transcendence (based upon the human imaging of a transcendent God) that has made us feel entitled to dominate the earth. This thesis, rarely questioned in environmentalist circles, has been used to justify various virulent strains of biological and ecological reductionism, and it has made antipathy to theistic spirituality de rigueur among right-thinking environmentalists. But if Heidegger is right, then Lynn White has gotten it backwards: Precisely the lack of transcendence has established the imperative to dominate as an ontological cornerstone of our contemporary world. We return here to Marcel Gauchet: “As God withdrew, the world changed from something presented to something constituted. God having become Other to the world, the world now becomes Other to humans. … Disentangling the visible from the invisible made it ‘inhuman’ in our minds, by reducing it to mere matter. At the same time, this made it appear capable of being wholly adapted to humans, malleable in every aspect and open to unlimited appropriation.”9


Gauchet is not characterizing here the program of Nietzschean metaphysics alone, but rather the much broader dynamic that (p.161) Max Weber, under the influence of both Hegel and Nietzsche, called the Entzauberung—the dis-enchantment, or better, de-magification—of the world. When the gods withdraw, or are driven out, from nature, then the world becomes disenchanted, demystified, secularized. We can do with it as we please, have our way with the earth and the earthly. And it is largely Christianity that is claimed to have performed this cosmic exorcism.

But there are strong reasons for seeing this as a half-truth at best. First, if we refrain from romanticizing the divinities of the ancient Greeks and Romans, we can readily see that their inherence in nature was regarded as more menacing than inspiring: All the various duties of religio—sacrifices and libations and all the rest—were performed not out of love or awe or even respect, but more as placation and propitiation, as concessions to cosmic bullying. Even Plutarch, himself an ordained priest of Apollo, conceded that “these feasts and sacrifices were instituted only with the aim of sating and appeasing the evil demons,” i.e., the personages and powers of the Greek pantheon.10 Prior to the advent of the mystery religions, there is scant evidence that anyone had taken these practices very seriously for some time, apart from assuring that they were performed correctly. Thus, there is little reason to think that nature exhibited any real “enchantment” during the classical periods of pagan antiquity, either regarding the gods per se, or their inherence in nature: As is made abundantly clear in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as Hesiod’s Works and Days, the kosmos was more like a treacherous minefield than it was like a wondrous, enchanted forest. And so it follows that the ancient Greeks and Romans had no “nature poetry” in the modern sense.

Second, as Peter Brown has shown in his studies of late antiquity, if Christianity dispelled the pagan magic, it more than compensated by substituting its own sense of the sacred in nature, one that was even more powerful—and certainly more heartfelt—than its predecessors. The sacred places in nature now become the sites of historical epiphanies, places where holy men and women enabled the connecting circuit between the visible and the invisible to be powerfully manifest: places of serene martyrdom and miraculous deeds and theophanous events that rendered the surrounding places and landscapes themselves to be enduringly charged with the divine energies.11

But there is a third set of reasons that the “disenchantment” thesis obscures and underestimates the positive contributions of Christian philosophy and spirituality, and it is the consideration of (p.162) these that will form the central concern of this chapter. I will argue that rather than substitute an abstract, rationalized, and exterior set of relations between humanity and nature for the daimonic interiority that it had exorcised—a process that came much later with scholastic philosophy and the subsequent rise of modern science and technology—the deepest currents of traditional Christian thought and spirituality during the first millennium instead strengthened and more deeply interiorized this element, so much so that it eventually served to make possible the most vital and most important sensibilities of modern environmental thought. This is, of course, a far-reaching and seemingly counterintuitive thought, and the remainder of this chapter is devoted to a preliminary effort to make it intelligible—and perhaps even somewhat plausible as well.


Pavel Florensky was surely the brightest star of the cultural and intellectual renaissance that took place in Russia just prior to the revolutions of 1917. Florensky was a philosopher and theologian, but also a linguist who had mastered a dozen languages, a scientist and mathematician of international renown, and an art historian and intellectual historian whose critical works are now being translated. He also had a deep and even mystical love for the natural environment, drawn partly from an idyllic childhood in the Caucasus Mountains, which remained with him during the harshest years of confinement in the Siberian gulags. A major chapter of his masterpiece, The Pillar and Ground of Truth, is devoted to nature understood as “creation,” and here he develops a remarkable thesis, running directly counter to the thesis advanced by Nietzsche and White concerning nature and Christianity. Florensky argues:

Only Christianity has given birth to an unprecedented beingin-love with creation. Only Christianity has wounded the heart with the wound of loving pity for all being. If we take the “sense of nature” to mean … more than an external, subjectively aesthetic admiration of “the beauties of nature,” this sense is then wholly Christian and utterly inconceivable outside of Christianity, for it presupposes the reality of creation. [This] sense of nature … became conceivable only when people saw in creation not merely a demonic shell, not some emanation of Divinity, not some illusory appearance of God, (p.163) like a rainbow in a spray of water, but an independent, autonomous, and responsible creation of God, beloved of God and capable of responding to His love.12

One aspect of Florensky’s thesis, as he presents it, will resonate with current scholarship, for his argument that modern natural science presupposes the belief in a logos operating consistently and intelligibly within the kosmos has by now been accepted by many historians of science. And although this thought begins with Heraclitus, and is developed by the Stoics, it took a Christian cosmological vision to arrive at the notion of a “book of nature”—a phrase first used by St. Anthony the Great in the fourth century—whose characters could be intelligibly “read.” But other aspects of Florensky’s claim seem at first to be far less plausible, given our usual views of the Christian tradition. “The wound of loving pity for all being”? “An unprecedented love for creation”? In the Christianity that developed in the West, especially after the Great Schism of 1054, only St. Francis comes readily to mind here. But things are different if we turn to the Christian East. Here we find St. Isaac the Syrian, a seventh century monk much admired by Dostoevsky, who expresses this cosmic love as follows:

An elder was once asked, “What is a compassionate heart?” He replied:

“It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation.

“This is why he constantly offers up prayers full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.

“He even prays for the reptiles as a result of the great compassion which is poured out beyond measure—after the likeness of God—in his heart.”13

Mature monastic askēsis here arrives not at a disavowal of nature but at a cosmic embrace. And if we examine the actual development (p.164) of Christian monasticism, and of the philosophical reflections it shaped, in contrast to the fictitious asceticism of Nietzsche’s imagination, it is quite clear that a movement away from the earth-despising attitude of Platonism was not just a discernable feature, but precisely its most salient characteristic. And more generally as well, Plato’s demotion of the realm of becoming was the principal reason that his writings were held at arm’s length throughout Byzantine intellectual history, for the divine exclamation at the end of each day of creation that the visible, palpable, audible world was, in the words of the Septuagint, “kalon,” i.e. “fine” in the senses of both good and beautiful.

For Plato, the visible world is remote from true being. Epistemologically, he maintains, our experience of the earthly offers only faint and distorted evidence of the real, and this is because metaphysically it is several steps removed from the real, which lies beyond it, and which can be reached only to the extent that the wings of the soul lift us above the earthly. And only at this point, beyond the earthly and visible, can we speak of a contemplation or theōria of true being. Perhaps the closest Plato comes to prescribing a contemplative relation to the kosmos is in the Timaeus, where it is argued that the daimonic part of the soul needs to be appropriately fed, and that by reflecting on the motions of the heavens, this highest part of the soul can nourish and strengthen the inherent buoyancy “that lifts us up toward our kindred in heaven and away from the earth” (Tim. 90a–d).14 Thus, only the very peak of the visible (the light of the heavens) is of higher interest, and even then, only in order to elevate us beyond the visible into what the Phaedrus calls “that place beyond the heavens. [where] true being dwells” (Phaedrus, 247c).

“Now to discover the poet and father of the all,” says Timaeus, “is quite a task” (Tim. 28c). And though the Timaeus goes on to argue, on the basis of cosmic beauty, that there must be a demiurge, this is presented as an inference rather than an attending, as a path to the divine that is mediate and discursive rather than in any sense contemplative or noetic. But if we look not toward Athens but toward Jerusalem, we will find something very different:

  • The heavens declare the glory of God;
  • and the firmament proclaims the work of His hands …
  • Day upon day pours forth speech,
  • and night upon night proclaims knowledge.
  • (p.165) There are no tongues nor words
  • where their voices are not heard.
  • Their sound has gone out into all the earth,
  • and their words to the ends of the world.

(Psalm 18/19)

Whereas for Plato it is difficult, “quite a task,” to discern the divine even at the very pinnacle of the natural order, for the psalmist heaven and earth speak always and everywhere of holy beauty, the divine glory. So loquacious and eloquent are these voices that in the “Wisdom of Solomon,” those who nevertheless manage to overlook the divine beauty in the cosmos are depicted as not only “ignorant,” but “foolish.” For the “incorruptible Spirit [of God] is in all things,” and thus “by the greatness and beauty of creation, proportionably the maker of them is seen [theōreitai]” (Wisdom 12:1–13:5). Not surmised or deduced or concluded, but seen. Cosmic aesthetics unfolding into a true “natural theology” that is immediate and experiential rather than discursive and inferential as it was in Greek philosophy and even more its scholastic successors.

This is a very different sensibility, a sense of nature as a field or arena that is shot through with divine energies and holy syllables, of nature not as mute and unreal and ultimately dispensable, but as solid and expressive and eminently worthy of our attention. This new sense is articulated philosophically in Middle Platonism by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who was the first to bring together philosophically Athens and Jerusalem, and who unlike Plato felt that it was not difficult but easy to apprehend the agency, and thus the existence of God in the splendor of nature, and above all in the order and beauty of heavenly nature.15 Easy and natural, because with Philo, we find a God who is expressive, who speaks and declares Himself.16 Yet with Philo, as with Plato, even the heavens are of only transitory interest in the ascent of the soul toward the intelligible. It is, rather, with the advent of Christianity, not just as the latest of the “mystery religions,” but as a school of ancient philosophy, that nature begins to receive a philosophical legitimacy of its own, becoming worthy of contemplation in its own right.


The contemplation of nature, theōria physikē, has a rich development that begins in late antiquity, and its history remains to (p.166) be written. This “natural contemplation” is by no means the kind of discursive, explanatory inquiry into nature with which we are familiar in earlier Greek philosophy from Parmenides’s account of the deceptive, second-rate world of appearances to the discursive accounts of Aristotle and the Greek Atomists. Rather, the same kind of noetic, contemplative comportment that Plato had reserved solely for the eternal forms, denuded of any earthly encumbrance, is now directed toward the cosmos itself. It is the practice of seeing (theōrein) the divine depths (logoi) of nature: of seeing nature in God, and seeing God in nature. theōria physikē was developed almost entirely within the frame of reference of Christian philosophy, and it had few, if any, counterparts among the pagan philosophers—confounding to those today who believe that it was paganism that venerated nature and Christianity that turned its back upon it. Only a few figures in this development can be considered here, all but one of them in a rather cursory manner. All were mystics and philosophers of the Greek East—from Alexandria and Constantinople to the Cappadocian Highlands and the Syrian and Egyptian Deserts—and contrary to what we would expect if Nietzsche was correct about asceticism as world-negating, all five were Christian monastics.

It was the third-century Alexandrian philosopher Origen—fellow student with Plotinus at the school of Ammonios Saccas—who first employed the term physikē to refer not to the investigation, but to the contemplation of nature. And it was Origen who first articulated what it was that this contemplation sought—the logoi that inhered within all creation. For Origen took his bearings, as would the other four, from the “Prologue” to St. John, according to which it was through the eternal Logos or Divine Word that all things were created. Thus, Origen can characterize this physikē by stating that “He who made all things in wisdom so created all the species of visible things upon the earth that He placed in them some teaching and knowledge of things invisible and heavenly whereby the human mind might mount to spiritual understanding and seek the grounds of things in heaven.”17 Ultimately, however, Origen’s pagan roots pull him back into world-dismissal, for he retains the Platonist belief that our very life within the visible is a kind of lapse, and thus concludes that the contemplation of nature ultimately serves only to prepare us for our homecoming in the invisible.

Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century Cappadocian, further develops this contemplative approach to nature. His allegorical (p.167) reading of the life of Moses explores how the contemplative life can be understood as articulating the pathway to becoming a “friend of God,” and glossing the Psalm cited previously, he sees nature as an important source of our knowledge of God: “For the wonderful harmony of the heavens proclaims the wisdom which shines forth in the creation and sets forth the great glory of God through the things which are seen, in keeping with the statement, the heavens declare the glory of God.”18 Unlike Origen, Gregory rejects the Platonic notion of a chōrismos between the visible and the invisible, and he regards the inner logoi of creation not just as images of the divine but as divine words spoken though, and indeed to, each created thing—as in each case “an interior word that was spoken to these very same beings, a living voice” that is immanent in existent beings. Even the senses—so despised by Platonists of the strict observance—become, in Gregory’s words, “signposts for penetrating deeper into the invisible from the visible.” At the same time, Gregory is aware of the divine mystery that inheres within the deepest recesses of creation, and thus cautions that our quest for knowledge must disavow its tendency to grasp after things like a raptor seizing its prey: because of their very interiority, we can never fully capture these logoi that lend life to creation.19

Both Origen and Gregory had emphasized that theōria physikē required important prerequisites in life, a successful acquisition of virtue (ethikē) and a purification of the soul (katharsis) from passions such as gluttony, avarice, anger, and vainglory. But with Evagrios of Pontos, friend and younger contemporary of Gregory, we meet not only an ascetic, but a monastic who entirely abandoned the sophisticated cities of the late Roman empire for the harsh wilderness of the desert. Evagrios emphasizes more clearly than either Origen or Gregory that the mystical quest not only may, but must pass through the stage of natural contemplation. Nor is there anything in his writings to indicate that it need be left behind at all, even if it is to be regarded as penultimate to something even higher. He contrasts theōria physikē first with the ordinary human understanding of things, which approaches them naively and superficially, just as they present themselves at first glance, and second with a demonic understanding of things, which deals with things under the influence of the passions, solely in their materiality, and only in order to appropriate and exploit them. Natural contemplation, in contrast, is neither human nor demonic, but angelic. Like Cleopas, whose heart burned within him as the Incarnate Word revealed (p.168) the inner meaning of scripture on the Road to Emmaus, Evagrios commends to us as well that our hearts burn within as we practice this angelic contemplation of the logoi, the inner meaning of the things themselves.20 Evagrios holds additional importance here, because he placed particular emphasis upon the ascetic struggle to overcome the passions and attain virtue, thereby laying the foundation for all later writings on ascetism. But far from being world-denying, this effort for Evagrios has as its aim just the opposite: “We practice the virtues in order to achieve contemplation of the inner meaning (logoi) of existent things, and from this we pass to contemplation of the divine Logos in the ontological heart of all things.”21

Finally, at least brief mention must be made of Dionysios the Areopagite, nominally the companion of St. Paul and first bishop of Athens, but most likely a Byzantine monk of the late fifth or early sixth century. Although Dionysios has become celebrated for his negative or “apophatic” theology in his Mystical Theology, he also developed a positive or kataphatic theology as well, intended as penultimate to the highest, apophatic path.22 In extant writings such as On the Divine Names and On the Celestial Heirarchy, Dionysios offers us a lively and engaging example of the spirit of theōria physikē as he explores how God can be known from creation—for as he explains, “truly the visible is the manifest image [eikōn] of the invisible” (“Letter Ten,” 1117B). Von Balthasar has characterized these writings of Dionysios in a manner that nicely conveys the savor of that authentic love for creation, which Florensky argues is rooted in authentic Christian asceticism:

One can only with difficulty resist the temptation to quote profusely the theological portrayals by this poet of water, wind and clouds, and particularly of the fragrance of God, the delightful interpretations that go right to the heart of such things as bodily eating and drinking. … Particularly noteworthy are his accounts of the spiritual significance of the colours, of the essential properties of the beasts—the might of the ox, the sublime untameability of the lion, the majesty, powerful ascent, swiftness, watchfulness, inventiveness, and sharp-sightedness of the eagle, and so on—[and] of the power of symbolic expression found in the human body and its organs: this gives one an idea of what natural contemplation (theōria physikē) can mean in Greek theology.23

(p.169) V

It was, however, a seventh-century Byzantine monk named Maximos who brought this understanding of theōria physikē, and the underlying ontology that it entails, to its fulfillment. Although until recently he has been relatively unknown in Western circles, Maximos has long played an influential, foundational role in the Greek East, comparable to the importance of Augustine in the Latin world. Happily, his writings are now beginning to be translated into English.

With Maximos, it becomes even clearer than before that the cosmic logoi are neither Platonic forms, nor Augustinian exemplars, nor “ideas” in the mind of God, to which individual embodiments would have to give way, and which would at the same time compromise the darkness and mystery of the divine being. Nor are they Aristotelian essences awaiting their “accidental” instantiation. Rather than essentialist, Maximos’s understanding of the logoi is intentionalistic and semiotic: They represent God’s purpose for each thing and hence the inner meaning of that thing. Every existent being—every person and every animal and every leaf and every stone—has its own logos: what it is meant to “say,” what the divine Logos is saying to it within its own depths, and saying through it in its interrelation to other beings. Thus, “to understand them properly,” notes David Bradshaw, “requires ‘hearing’ them, as Moses heard the fire in the burning bush, as part of a discourse uttered by God.”24 Moreover, because the being of these logoi is semiotic and intentional, they are able to cohere together naturally into groupings of higher generality without their individuality being subverted or compromised as they would be within a substantialist understanding—just as the verses of a poem yield a higher meaning when taken together in stanzas, sections, or books, and just as the loving acts of a parent elaborate collectively a unitary intention without being reducible either to one another or to the more general intent. Thus, as element of the divine energies discussed earlier, the logoi are in Bradshaw’s words, “the refracted presence of God in the world, that through which God manifests Himself in His creative act and by which He can be known.”25 Taken together, these logoi articulate the eternal Logos in what Maximos saw as a great, Cosmic Liturgy, mirrored by (and mirroring) the Divine Liturgy celebrated in Byzantine temples, that by the time of Maximos had itself for centuries been designed to symbolize the interplay of heaven (p.170) and earth, as discussed in Chapter 4. For what in the Latin West came to be called the Mass was in the Greek East called the Divine Liturgy, one of whose central features is the joining together of visible and invisible, God and humanity, nature and super-nature, nave and sanctuary, earth and heaven into a mystical unity that does not cancel difference, but rather enhances it. As Maximos puts it, “God’s holy church in itself is a symbol of the sensible world as such, since it possesses the divine sanctuary as heaven and the beauty of the nave as earth. Likewise, the world is a church since it possesses heaven corresponding to a sanctuary, and for a nave it has the adornment [diakosmēsis] of the earth.26

Just as this unification takes place in the microcosmic Divine Liturgy through the prayerful agency of a priest, so too was this supposed to have taken place in the macrocosmos, the world at large, through the cosmic priesthood of humanity. Indeed, it was just this for which humanity was created: to apprehend and celebrate in the beauty of the cosmos the invisible logoi within the visible world. And it is precisely the failure to do this—the failure to exercise a contemplative relation to the visible, to see it inwardly, spiritually, poetically—that constitutes the Fall, according to Maximos. Moreover, by seizing upon the visible in a merely sensuous way—approaching it in its outward character according to how it can serve our passions, approaching nature with what Evagrios had called a “demonic” understanding—not just humanity, but nature itself falls into disorder and corruption.

theōria physikē—or sometimes as with Origen, simply physikē—prior to Maximos is largely a station along the way. But with Maximos, it acquires a wholly new status. It is now seen not simply as the means to an end, one stage on the ascetic path, but as an end in itself: both the restoration of paradise, and the realization of our true destiny as human. This is how we once lived on earth, and how we need to be living now. It is the retrieval of how we should live, how we were meant to live: the inception of a life that can be fully lived. It is also the restoration of a mode of knowledge that extends far beyond our life in the midst of the created order, for it concerns our relation to scripture as well as to the Law, both of which must be understood iconically. And once again, it presupposes a notion of redemption, and indeed of the entire path to theōsis or divinization, as cosmic, i.e., as connected to the redemption of the world.

So we must practice theōria physikē not only to retrieve the paradisiacal, but to exercise that cosmic priesthood that is the truest and (p.171) highest goal and meaning—the highest logos—for humanity itself. For only human beings belong at once to both the visible and invisible orders, and it is within the human element that the nascent unity between the visible and invisible, between nature and supernature, between paradise and world, can be realized and articulated. Drawing deeply upon the theology of the Eastern Church, Maximos sees the Incarnation of the Eternal Logos in a single, particular, real human being as laying the foundation for this reconciliation process that is fully cosmic in its dimensions: It is not only for fallen humanity, but for a fallen cosmos that the Incarnation takes place: “the union of our humanity with the divine Logos through the incarnation has renewed the whole of nature.”27 Moreover, just as with Origen, Gregory, and Evagrios, this practice of theōria physikē requires preparation: a perfecting of virtue and a purification from the passions, things sought after systematically within a monastic context, but by no means unfamiliar to those who live reflective lives, as the autobiographical accounts of many natural history writers make evident. For it is the passions that make us grasp only the outward, sensuous aspect of nature—seizing only upon its potential for convenience or profit or entertainment—and ignore its inner depths, i.e., the logoi that join it to the eternal and invisible. To fail to do this, then, is to approach the visible world with the same kind of clumsy, sensuous, passionate manner as those who read the scriptures in a literalistic and exterior manner—it is to be, as it were, a fundamentalist of the senses! It is, as Maximos draws yet another analogy, to ignore the inner spirit in favor of the rigidity of the law, to be a legalist of the visible. And to phenomenological ears, it cannot help but seem to entail an entrenchment in the “naturalistic attitude” that must be suspended if real knowledge is to be possible.

There is, indeed, beyond this an even higher mode of contemplation according to Maximos, one in which we exercise an even more sublime capacity to enter into the loving, interior unity of the divine being. And theōria physikē, the contemplation of nature, does indeed serve as a pathway to this higher contemplation. But it is not merely a path, not only a means, nor is it ever superseded or suspended, for it constitutes a crucial aspect our very destiny as human, as not only microcosmic, but as peerless inhabitants of both worlds, of the visible and invisible, and even more as priests of their sacramental reconciliation and communion: “The human person unites the created nature with the uncreated through love … showing them to be one and the same through the possession of grace, the (p.172) whole [creation] wholly interpenetrated by God, and become completely whatever God is, save at the level of being, and receiving to itself the whole of God himself.”28


Given this view of theōria physikē, far from remaining the Nietzschean arch enemy of the earth, the genuine contemplative now appears to be its celebrant and high priest. But important questions remain. How, for example, does this conclusion extend beyond a few extraordinary monastics, scattered about some of the more remote areas of the Eastern Mediterranean, and in a distant past? Yet monasticism itself during the early centuries of Christian history was far from marginal. Rather, many of the most influential figures lived ascetic and monastic lives, and although they often inhabited remote places, their effect on worldly society was widespread and profound. Indeed, the tradition that followed from these five thinkers (and other, similar figures who could have been discussed) formed in fact the main current of thought and spirituality during the first eight hundred years, and it continues as such today in the Byzantine East, where it has been preserved, practiced, and embodied for two millennia. The perpetuation of this contemplative orientation toward nature in the Orthodox East is, of course, largely either unknown in the West, or else written off as a curious remnant of paganism. For example, the kinds of stories told in the West exclusively about St. Francis—tales of consorting and communing with the animals as with friends, and which have led amazed environmentalists to dub him the “patron saint” of ecology—have been told in the East about virtually all of the great holy men and women from the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century to St. Seraphim of Sarov in the nineteenth, and the Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos in the twentieth, a fact that is either overlooked or dismissed as apocryphal in the West. Or if one of the central themes in all of Dostoevsky’s major novels is “the moist earth,” questioning how our errant passions alienate us not only from God and humanity, but from the very earth itself, this is dismissed—as it is in a recent scholarly study of “Dostoevsky’s Religion”—as “pagan pantheism” and “almost pagan earth worship,” because its author has decided that it “contradicts some of the historically fundamental aspects of Christianity,” i.e., precisely the Western Christianity that he, along with Nietzsche, can then go on to conveniently dismiss.29

(p.173) How, then, was the thread of this tradition lost in the West? Other chapters in this book deal with various aspects of this decline. To varying degrees, it moves forward with Augustine’s situating of divine grace outside the order of nature. With the tenth century, Carolingian rejection of the icon as a visible window on the invisible. With the increased insistence that mysticism is not our human birthright, and that contemplative insight must be divinely infused, and then only for an elect few, and only for brief periods. With the scholastic belief that nature and supernature, heaven and earth, are metaphysically separate, as if nature could be understood even provisionally without reference to the divine energies that are always already at play within it. With the final catastrophe of Ockham’s nominalism that decisively cut the cord linking the visible and invisible, severing beings from their own depth dimension. And of course, with the consequent valorization of discursive rationality (especially as deployed in modern science and technology) as the only legitimate modality of knowledge.

But neither was theōria physikē ever entirely obscured, even in the West. The ninth century Irish monk Eriugena discussed something similar in words drawn from the texts of Maximos, Gregory, et al., that he had been translating, for he was one of the few Latin scholars able to read the Greek texts. St. Bonaventure, follower of St. Francis, also talks about something like the contemplation of nature, but it ends up being reduced to discursivity and the conventions of medieval symbolism. It is revived fleetingly, in Zen-like flashes, in Tauler, Eckhart, and other German mystics. And it is pursued with varying degrees of lucidity and success in German Idealism and English Romanticism by Goethe and Hölderlin and Schelling, by Blake and Wordsworth, Hopkins and Lawrence.

But it is perhaps in American Transcendentalism and its environmental descendents that theōria physikē is most impressively re-discovered and retrieved, even (and especially) with regard to its ascetic prerequisites. Thoreau ascetically simplifying his life on Walden Pond. Dillard withdrawn into pilgrimage at Tinker Creek. Muir taking off for the High Sierras with just a jacket, a loaf of bread, and a few tea bags. Monastic fare, indeed. Secular monastics struggling to “see” nature as it is, see it deeply and contemplate its rootedness in the holy. Thus, the great nature writers—who may be the truest founders of modern environmentalism—Thoreau, Emerson, Burroughs, Muir, Leopold, Snyder, Lopez, Berry, Dillard, and many others—could best be read as attempting to retrieve and articulate (p.174) the contemplative seeing that had become lost in a world that no longer regarded nature as an interface between the visible and invisible. Nor has this literary quest for the sacred in nature abated. Wendell Berry, himself a poet, even designates contemporary nature poetry as a whole as a “secular pilgrimage,” in search of “the presence of mystery or divinity in the world.”30

Yet another poet should be considered here, one who deserves to be included within the more usual canon of environmental poets and writers. For no one in the West during the twentieth century pursued contemplative knowledge, theōria, more insistently than did Thomas Merton—in his scholarship, in his ascetic practice, and in his own mode of spiritual environmentalism—and none did more to show that the contemplative life was by no means irrelevant to the earthly, both in his essays and in his poetry. And Merton returned continually to the Greek and Russian East for his inspiration, often writing explicitly of the theōria physikē that he had discovered in his readings of St. Maximos the Confessor and the other Greek patristics, even as he confided in his correspondence that he wanted to learn more about it.31 For example, Merton breaks with scholastic usage as he presents a central insight into theōria physikē: “Now the word ‘natural’ in connection with this kind of contemplation, refers not to its origin but to its object. theōria physikē is contemplation of the divine in nature, not a contemplation of the divine by our natural powers.”32 His friend and biographer, Basil Pennington, stresses the importance of Byzantine spirituality, and especially the practice of natural contemplation, in the development both of Merton’s spirituality and his poetics, and writes at length about what he calls “the ever deepening insight into theōria physikē that Merton was integrating into his perception of reality.”33

Hence my claim—which this chapter has merely laid forth—that it has been the partial recovery of this theōria physikē, and its correlative ontology of an inner depth to nature, that has served as a spiritual foundation for the rise of modern environmentalism. It would be, then, not by accident that Christian theology reverberates—often quietly, but sometimes, as with Muir and Dillard and Berry, quite explicitly—within the writing of so many of these environmental visionaries. And if this is the case, then although it is our use of Western technology that has pushed the earth to the point of collapse, the sense of nature that has made this possible is itself due to a spiritual collapse from which we are yet to recover.


(1) . p. 320.

(2) . Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogy, in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximos the Confessor (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2003), 327.

(p.269) (3) . “Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Heidegger’s Later Philosophy,” in Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. David E. Ling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 216f.

(4) . Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), 125.

(5) . Ibid.

(6) . Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1968), 265.

(7) . Martin Heidegger, “The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics,” in Nietzsche: Volumes Three and Four (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991), Volume III, pp. 17, 231f, 240.

(8) . Ibid, 245.

(9) . Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, trans. Oscar Burge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 95.

(10) . Plutarch, On the Disappearance of Oracles, XIV, 417d, cited in Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of Truth, trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 529.

(11) . Documenting this re-sacralization, historian Peter Brown describes how through holy relics—and much more importantly in the East, the life and being of holy men and women, monastics and saints and holy fools—“paradise itself came to ooze into the world. Nature itself was redeemed. … The countryside found its voice again … in an ancient and spiritual vernacular, of the presence of the saints. Water became holy again. The hoof-print of his donkey could be seen beside a healing spring, which St. Martin had caused to gush forth from the earth … They brought down from heaven to earth a touch of the unshackled, vegetable energy of God’s own paradise.” Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christianity: Triumph and Diversity, A. D. 200–1000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 164.

(12) . Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 210.

(13) . St. Isaac of Syria, Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria, ed. A. M. Allchin, trans. Sebastian Brock (Springfield, Ill.: Templegate, 1989), 29.

(14) . Peter Kalkavage, trans., Plato’s Timeaus (Newburyport, Mass.: Focus Publishing, 2001), 128.

(15) . Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 20.

(16) . Ibid., 53.

(17) . Commentary on the Song, III. 12, cited in Louth, Origins, 59.

(18) . Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Everett Malherve and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 137, 96.

(19) . Hans Urs van Balthasar, Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 48f, 92f.

(p.270) (20) . Evagrios the Solitary, “Texts on Discrimination in Respect of Passion and Thoughts,” in The Philokalia, Volume 1 (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 42f.

(21) . Evagrios the Solitary, “On Prayer,” in The Philokalia, Volume 1, 61f. The translation here also interpolates that of John McGuckin in The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditation on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives (Boston: Shambala, 2002), 83; italics added.

(22) . The relation between kataphatic (positive) and apophatic (negative) theology in Dionysios is put succinctly by Eric Perl: “To pass from the intellectual apprehension of being to the ‘mystical’ encounter with the One is, once again, like turning from a multiplicity of reflections to that which is being reflected.” Eric D. Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysios the Areopagite (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), 94.

(23) . Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume II, trans. Andrew Louth, Francis McDonagh, and Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 182.

(24) . David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 206.

(25) . Ibid.

(26) . Maximos Confessor, The Church’s Mystagogy, in Selected Writings, trans. George C. Berthold (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 189.

(27) . St. Maximos the Confessor, Third Century of Various Texts, in The Philokalia, Volume 2, ed. St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 121.

(28) . Maximos the Confessor, Difficulty [Ambiguum] 41, in Maximos the Confessor, ed. and trans. Andrew Louth (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 158.

(29) . Steven Cassedy, Dostoevsky’s Religion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), xiii, 162, 175

(30) . Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), 5f.

(31) . Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), 50.

(32) . Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, ed. William H. Shannon (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2003), 68.

(33) . M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton My Brother (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 1996), 110. See also pp. 26–28 and 98–113 for discussions of the influence of Byzantine spirituality on Merton.